Illinois football: Former LB Jeremy Leman sizes up Illini's chances
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Jeremy Leman has always believed that a simple truth brings football success.
He who runs the ball and he who denies the run shall have the best chance of winning the football game.
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Leman was a play-making linebacker and spiritual leader for Ron Zook's Illini team that made it to the Rose Bowl following the 2007 season. He went on to play for five NFL teams (two of them twice), trying unsuccessfully to latch onto something permanent.
After four seasons of bouncing around on practice squads — and in training camps once he was finished with pro football — Leman began reshaping his own body while he pursued an interest in optimal nutrition and nutritional science.
Leman, a Champaign native, has personally ridden the football weight chart roller coaster. He weighed 205 pounds when he showed up as an Illini freshman. During his college football heyday he played at 243 pounds.
This week, it was a tan, lean Leman who looks more like a safety than a linebacker, weighing a sleek 220 pounds.
"My wife says I lost 10 pounds in my neck alone," Leman said.
Part of Leman's curiosity was to see coach Lovie Smith's version of the "Tampa 2" defense. Leman always felt he was a bad match for the "Tampa 2" and landing on teams like the Minnesota Vikings, where Leslie Frazier utilized Lovie's "Tampa 2" defense, didn't help his career in the NFL.
"Let's just say it didn't play to my strengths," he said.
"In the 'Tampa 2,' the middle linebacker has to be really athletic," Leman said. "That's why Brian Urlacher was so great in Lovie's defense with the Bears. He was big and he could really run. He could easily drop into pass coverage.
"(Decatur's) Brit Miller could really run in our Illini defense, much better than I could. But we were both able to make plays."
Leman is the father of two and when reminded that Miller now has three children, Leman just laughed. "Yeah, Brit's always been productive."
Leman stopped by practice in part because he's an analyst for the Big Ten Network and he'll be asked to speak with some authority on the intrigue that now surrounds Illini football since the hiring of Lovie Smith in March.
"They're a work in progress," Leman said vaguely this week. "I like some of the things I'm seeing."
He said he saw signs of a team trending in the right direction in terms of strength gains but one glimpse isn't enough to make predictions about effectiveness of the offensive line or linebackers, which ultimately will make or break Illinois' ability to run and stop the run.
Leman did spot a familiar face on the coaching staff. Bob Ligashesky, Illinois' new special teams coach, was Leman's special teams coach when he played with the Oakland Raiders.
Ligashesky fits the typical special teams coaching mold: High energy, always running, shouting, gesturing, pleading, sometimes screaming.
While most of Lovie Smith's assistant coaches are low-key, Ligashesky is the wild man. Seems like most special teams coaches operate on a different wave length.
"You know why that is? It's because in the NFL, one bad play can get a special teams coach fired. Those guys are a different breed," Leman said.
Leman is an effective analyst because he's truthful in his judgments. As a former player and alum, he'd love to see Illinois repeat his senior year, going 9-3 in the regular season while stamping its ticket for Pasadena.
But he's honest enough to withhold judgment until more evidence is in. Chances are, Illinois isn't ready for that kind of step yet.
Still, Leman knows interest is building and he's grateful for that.
"This is exciting," he said, motioning toward Lovie Smith with a whistle around his neck. "This is going to be fun."
This article was written by Mark Tupper from Herald & Review, Decatur, Ill. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.